Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dancin' Ginger Lumberjacks

If you were enrolled in a West Texas high school, chances are good that at least one (if not all) of your history/social studies teachers pulled double duty as athletic coaches. This meant that on the all important game days, they would roll in the TV/VCR combo and put on some sort of topically irrelevant video. One particular favorite of mine was watching Andy Griffith reruns in Geography while  being told to "study the mountains in the background"...

I am forever grateful to one of my coaches however. He broke the stereotype. When he put on a movie, it was rarely boring and always what you would least expect. The day he put on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I about had a stroke. This gruff football coach was putting on a musical?! Not only did he hush all of the "guffaws" and bored moans but occasionally you could hear him humming along with one of the songs... He even rewound the tape to watch the "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" twice to teach the teen boys how to look for a "proper woman"...

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is a rare musical gem. A brief synopsis: Adam Pontipee, travels to town in order to find himself a wife to take care of his homestead. He stumbles upon a woman who meets his criteria, Millie, and marries her the same day. Millie is a strong Western woman who just happens to have fallen in love with her male chauvinist husband. The two of them have a tricky relationship. Adam doesn't know how to love his wife and he isn't even sure if he does... love wasn't on his mind when he decided to marry. In the mean time, his 6 younger brothers have each fallen for a girl from town and at Adam's advice they kidnap their sweethearts and hold them at their farm all winter. 

Sound a little strange... well... it is. Not to mention their is a lot of singing, dancing and red headed men wielding axes. My favorite of the Pontipee clan is the second to the oldest brother, Benjamin. (Each Pontipee is named alphabetically with a name from the bible). Benjamin is the biggest broadest of the clan next to Adam. You can tell all the other guys are dancers just from the way they walk and move but Benjamin isn't quite as graceful as his siblings... he loafs around a bit more...I kind of love him for that. Not to mention Jeff Richards was a cutie! I mean come on... look at that smile... Each of the Pontipee men have something going for them. The writers didn't just lump all of the guys together but went to the trouble of giving them each personalities. Frank has a bit of a temper (especially when it comes to his name... Frank is short for Frankincense).Gideon is the sweet youngest brother who sees and understands more than any of the others... I love how they took the time to distinguish the brothers and make them unique.

It's crucial to watch this movie in widescreen, you miss so much of the dance numbers when the image is cut down to fit smaller TV sets. (It's also quite remarkable in restored technicolor!) Director Stanley Donen is one of my absolute favorites. He was truly an artist when it came to crafting musical numbers (given that his start was with Gene Kelly... this isn't surprising). He was also constantly reinventing the wheel, adding new techniques, longer cuts and variations on the traditional. For example, in Seven Brides, Donen films the entire lament song sequence in one single shot, this required the actors to be in complete unison as well as painstakingly choreographed to perfection in order to get it just right... and the effect is stunning.

I love watching this movie because it reminds me not to ever judge a book by it's cover. Clean up a rough looking Pontipee and you get a really handsome gentleman... give an old football coach a chance, and his film choices might just be worth the game day win... And every time I hear Howard Keel affectionately objectify his future wife, I hear my crazy coach humming off-key in my head...

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